Smith's return aids Steelers' run defense
Sunday, August 24, 2008
BY DALE GRDNIC
For The Patriot-News
PITTSBURGH - When asked who are the most invalu able Pittsburgh Steelers players, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tailback Willie Parker and wideout Hines Ward come to mind on offense.
Safety Troy Polamalu would be among the first defensive players mentioned.
Those clearly are the most popular Steelers, as well as being stalwarts on offense and defense.
However, the club's success on defense, especially against the run, diminished considerably after end Aaron Smith suffered a torn right biceps muscle during the game at New England Dec. 9, 2007.
Smith, however, was hesitant to take credit, and he really couldn't put his finger on what changed with the Steelers' defense late in the season.
"I think the guys we have as backups are very capable of doing the job themselves," Smith said.
"I think there's more to it than just saying 'Aaron wasn't playing.' I mean, the fact is there are 11 guys out there. Travis and Nick and the other guys are very capable of getting the job done."
The Steelers obviously believed that, because they re-signed Nick Eason and veteran Travis Kirschke in the offseason.
However, the Steelers clearly were not as good against the run in the six games Smith missed due to a knee problem (two games) and after the biceps injury (four).
The 32-year-old Smith, in his 10th season, had not missed a game since 1999.
The Steelers allowed 71.7 rushing yards per game during the 11 games Smith played, which would have ranked the unit first in the NFL.
In the six games that he missed, the Steelers allowed 130.7 rushing yards per game, and that would have ranked the club nearly last, 28th of the 32 NFL teams.
Surely there are other reasons the Steelers were so successful before Smith's injury and then sank like a rock in the NFL rankings for rushing yards allowed, Smith asked again, but he only needed to look in the mirror.
"Aaron Smith is an All-Pro player," longtime Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said.
"He's one of the best defensive linemen in the National Football League. If you would ask me what player in this league I would rather have besides Aaron Smith, there wouldn't be one. It would be Aaron Smith."
Despite playing left end in the Steelers' 3-4 defensive alignment, the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Smith cracked the team's top 10 into the ninth spot with 36 career sacks.
But his forte is stuffing the run with behemoth nose tackle Casey Hampton providing support from the middle. While Hampton occupies two and three blockers, Smith can eliminate his blocker and get to the ball-carrier.
Since he is freakishly strong and quick for his size, with powerful hands, Smith usually is met by multiple blockers as well. That allows the Steelers linebackers to fill the gaps and make tackles on opposing running backs.
But outside the Steelers offices, Smith rarely gets recognized, as he has just one Pro Bowl honor in the nine previous seasons (2005).
That doesn't seem to matter to the laid-back Smith. Fellow end Brett Keisel believes otherwise.
"Aaron's the best, no doubt about it," Keisel said. "We all look to him on the D-line. He's the veteran out there, and he always plays hard. He deserves any accolade he gets, and he should get more. And when he was out last year, you see what happened. We clearly need him to be healthy this season."
Some might believe that Smith's health is a concern, but he isn't worried.
"I think it'll probably be stronger than my other one, to be honest with you," Smith said.
"My arm was helped during my rehab. My feeling is it's something that I've probably been playing with for a while, and that was the final straw. [But] I feel great. I can do everything I need to do to play."
Smith was brought along slowly during the spring, but he steadily picked up speed during training camp and should be ready for the season opener with the Houston Texans at 1 p.m. Sept. 7 at Heinz Field.
Until then, he can be found working out in the weight room or on the practice field.
"I feel like I need to work every day," Smith said. "I'm the type of guy that needs to be out there on the field. So, it was tough for me to watch the games last year when I was injured at the end of the season.
"We take pride in stopping the run, so for me to be out and actually watch that happen and not be able to help or do anything about it was hard.
"[But] I think we'll be back to our former level, if not better, this season."
As long as Smith stays healthy, that's a safe bet.
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